Lakers lay down law, and Divac follows court orders


CHICAGO -- The Los Angeles Lakers have their own version of the good cop-bad cop routine, starring coach Mike Dunleavy, team captain Magic Johnson and youthful center Vlade Divac.

Dunleavy is the good cop, Johnson the bad cop and Divac the suspect.

"Magic really gets upset with Vlade when he thinks he's made a mental mistake or isn't giving 100 percent," Dunleavy said.

"He'll yell at him on the court in front of thousands of fans. I try to be a calming influence, encouraging Vlade all the time. But he accepts criticism better than any player I've been associated with."

Johnson, who has castigated Divac in the NBA playoffs, reportedly has been told to soften his heavy-handed style. It seems like sound advice with Divac no longer a suspect as a pro, but a big-time contributor to the Lakers.

"Vlade has the potential to become a great player in this league," Dunleavy said. "He is still learning the game, but he already possesses great hands, terrific basketball instincts and a fine shooting touch. Usually, it takes a big man four or five years to establish himself in this league. But Vlade is way ahead of schedule. He's a big reason we've got this far."

Divac, 23, held his own against Houston Rockets superstar Hakeem Olajuwon in the opening-round series and neutralized Portland Trail Blazers center Kevin Duckworth in the Western Conference finals.

In Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Divac, a 7-footer with Bambi eyes and a scruffy beard, scored 16 points and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds to overshadow veteran Bill Cartwright in the Lakers' 93-91 victory. Game 2 is set for tonight at Chicago Stadium.

When the season began, Johnson listed Divac, who came from Yugoslavia and inherited the starting job at center by default from a fading Mychal Thompson, as one of the team's big puzzles. He questioned Divac's commitment to working and winning. In Europe, Divac had the reputation of playing down to the competition.

These concerns grew last summer, when he lost his passport in Argentina, causing him to miss his off-season work at Pete Newell's big men's camp. Divac reported to training camp in October out of shape, sucking air in full-court scrimmages.

But Divac, who at 18 was playing on Yugoslavia's national team, has matured in a hurry, on and off the court. Once limited to speaking in his native Serbo-Crotian, he is almost fluent in English, and no longer restricting himself to ordering cheeseburgers or watching daytime television.

Once asked what he was watching, Divac replied, "Sony." But now he has a grasp of the whole picture. He even has filmed several television commercials, the most popular one for Schick, with teammates A.C. Green and Thompson as his foils.

Divac's often-uninspired performances on the courts in Europe concerned the NBA scouts before the 1988 draft. His drowsy, laid-back look helped lead to his slipping to the 26th pick in the first round, despite his size and athleticism.

General manager Jerry West cast the deciding vote for the Lakers to select Divac. The Lakers, like most NBA teams, had not scouted Divac in Europe.

"We had all the usual concerns because of the language barrier and whether he would be willing to play in the States," said West. "But we also heard rumors about him smoking, drinking and jumping off the balcony of a girls dorm."

West decided to find out for himself. He questioned a number of European players, including former Laker Bob McAdoo, and studied videotapes of Divac's games in international competition. West said he was impressed, but was certain Divac would not be available when the Lakers' turn came in the draft.

As things developed, Divac and Gary Leonard, a promising 7-footer from Missouri, were unchosen. Several Lakers executives argued strongly for Leonard, but West overruled them.

"Obviously, some people saw it as a gamble," said West. "But his talent was no gamble."

There was also no question in Divac's mind in 1989 when it came to remaining a big fish in Yugoslavia or a bit player with the Lakers.

"I came here because it was my dream to play with the Lakers and Magic," he said. "Yes, Magic screams at me, but it is for my own good. I improved my game 50 percent this season [11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds]. I play hard because I love Los Angeles and want to stay there. There is no better place to play basketball."

Before each game, Dunleavy gently needles his center, asking Divac whether he is playing with a half tank or full tank.

"Early in the season, I had to think, but now I play only with a full tank," Divac said with a smile.


+!L.A. Lakers 93, Chicago Bulls 91

Today, at Chicago, 9 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

Friday, at Lakers, 9 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

Sunday, at Lakers, 7 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

June 12, at Lakers, 9 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

June 14, at Chi., 9 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

June 16, at Chi., 7 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

* -- if necessary.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad